For the week ending 5 April 2008 / 29 Adar II 5768

Magen David

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Marsha in Australia

Dear Rabbi,

Is the familiar six-pointed star called the Star of David indeed associated with King David, or for that matter is it an original Jewish symbol at all?

Dear Marsha,

There is no mention of this symbol in the Torah or any of the Talmudic literature. In addition, unlike the menorah, which is mentioned and also found in many archeological findings in buildings and on coins, the Star of David is not found in any ancient Jewish artifacts. This would seem to indicate that this widespread symbol of Judaism used today is not uniquely or originally Jewish.

Some possible exceptions that I can’t confirm might include a Babylonian relief purportedly depicting Nebuchadnezzar capturing King Zedekiah. Above the head of Nebuchadnezzar is the winged sun disc of the Babylonian empire while above the head of King Zedekiah is an encircled Magen David. If this is correct, it might identify the Magen David as a Jewish, or at least a Judah symbol. However, on the other hand, the relief is not a Jewish source. There also seems to be a relic referred to as the seal of Joshua Ben Asayahu found in Sidon from the Second Temple period in the 6th century BCE that purportedly contains the symbol. Finally, I have seen this symbol carved in a frieze on a fourth-century CE synagogue at Capernaum (Kfar Nachum) in Israel. However, since it is accompanied by both a five-pointed star and possibly a swastika there is no indication that it is of Jewish origin.

The six-pointed star also seems to have a very long history in India and the Far East. This usage and that as the Star of David may have similar origins, or they may have developed independently since the superimposing of inversed triangles is geometrically rather simple (unlike this sentence).

While the Talmudic literature does not mention the Magen David as a symbol, the term is discussed as a concept. The gemara uses this terminology when referring to G-d’s shield of protection over David and his descendent Messiah (Pesachim 117b). This is the source for the blessing recited after reading the haftarah on Shabbat: “Gladden us…with the kingdom of the house of David…let no other inherit his honor…for You swore that his heir will not be extinguished…Blessed are You, G-d, Sheild of David (Magen David). This concept and phrase are based on verses in which David praises G-d for shielding him from harm (II Sam. 22:36, Ps. 18:36).

According to legend, David battled with a shield that either had this symbol on it, or was constructed in this shape as two triangular pieces of leather stretched over a circular frame. Another idea connecting the symbol to David is based on the Hebrew spelling of his name ‘dalet’, ‘vav’, ‘dalet’. In ancient times the ‘dalet’ was triangular-shaped (similar to the Greek delta) and “vav” implies a connection. David’s name in Hebew, then, can be represented symbolically as two interconnected triangles. However, these ideas are just lore and conjecture and are based on imagination more than on fact.

Exactly when, how and why the symbol became incorporated into Judaism is unclear. Nevertheless, a Shield of David has been found on a Jewish tombstone in Southern Italy dating as early as the third century CE. A Tanach dated 1307 belonging to Rabbi Yosef bar Yehuda ben Marvas from Toledo, Spain, is decorated with a Shield of David. In 1460, the Jews of Hungary received King Mathios Kuruvenus with a red flag on which were two Shields of David. A Hebrew prayer book printed in Prague in 1512 has a large Shield of David on the cover with the phrase, “Each man beneath his flag according to the house of their fathers... and he will merit to bestow a bountiful gift on anyone who grasps the Shield of David.” In addition, flags with the Shield of David apparently adorned the synagogues of Prague.

The Magen David is also mentioned in Jewish mystical texts of the Middle Ages. The earliest is Eshkol Ha-Kofer by the Karaite Judah Hadassi, in the mid-12th century CE: “Seven names of angels precede the mezuzah: Michael, Gabriel, etc. ... And likewise the sign, called the Shield of David, is placed beside the name of each angel.” Some Kabbalistic amulets use the symbol to arrange the Ten Sefirot, including in the six points the six Hebrew letters of “Melech David”, “Yerushalayim” or the 7-lined prayer “ana b’koach” (using the middle of the symbol as the seventh point). Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, made a kabbalistic connection between the Star of David and items of the Seder plate by aligning the three matzot at the top point, the ‘zeroa’ (shankbone) and ‘beitza’ (egg) on the upper right and left, the ‘maror’ (bitter herb - lettuce) in the middle, the ‘charoset’ (mortar-like mixture)and ‘carpas’ (leafy vegetable) on the lower right and left, concluding with the ‘chazeret’ (horseradish) at the bottom.

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